Years of gaining lost in a moment

Published 2:30 pm Friday, May 16, 2014

 Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Final Word by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

My husband and son took advantage of the deep snow this past winter to stomp pathways and engineer numerous tunnels through our yard. At the dining room table, while sipping hot chocolate, they drew elaborate pictures of multi-level underground hideouts together.

When I was young, my family lived in a Victorian-style farmhouse built in the early 1900s. It had many stories attached to it, including some of the blue-tinged variety from its turn as a roadhouse. The tale that especially seized our imagination was of a gambling man burying a sum of ill-gotten gains somewhere in the yard and never returning for it.

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With fortune on our minds, my sisters and I borrowed a shovel and made our first foray into treasure hunting. Our initially enthusiastic assault on the lawn proved that digging up turf is hard, so we moved a few paces south to the gravel driveway where excavation was easier. Channeling the zeal of 49ers, we pockmarked the driveway with small holes that failed to yield anything but interesting rocks, which were treasure enough for us.

To the northwest of the house, I hunted for four-leaf specimens in a small field my dad planted with clover. One sunny morning, I spied a strange, shiny object winking among the green leaves. Hoping my potentially ancient find would astound the archaeology world, I disinterred it and ran to my dad with the prize. He wiped it off and surmised it was a radiator cap from a Model T Ford.

A Tin Lizzie part wasn’t the Iron Age artifact I had wished for, but it would’ve probably been at least 60 years old at the time. That was plenty old-fashioned in my estimation.

More adventures awaited in our grandparents’ farmyard in North Dakota, where my sisters and I roamed like urchins with our band of six cousins. We climbed atop the old outhouse to pick chokecherries, roller-skated across the cool cement floor of the quonset, chased garter snakes and raided our grandma’s prolific raspberry and strawberry patches.

We turned the shelterbelt into our hideout and used secret passwords and escape trails to allude the adults, who feigned befuddlement. My aunt Crystal lured us out briefly with green branches she had stripped with a jackknife to make bows and arrows. Our grandpa’s sister, Sigrid Gjellstad Johansson, a world champion archer, had taught her how to make them. Who could resist checking for another Artemis or Orion in our midst?

At other times we favored the machinery graveyard filled with rusty iron and rotting wood. We sat on the seats of bygone equipment marooned in tall grass and pretended to bust sod in big curling chunks like our homesteading ancestors did. We added the putt-putt sound of mechanization, even though our implements were clearly from the horse-drawn era.

Down in the Souris River Valley a few miles away, our second cousins on the original Gjellstad homestead had a backyard view of the old log cabin our great-great-grandfather Ivar built. Its two rooms and dirt floors had accommodated 11 people early on. We weren’t allowed to play in it for safety reasons, but my grandpa’s younger brother cleaned it up for a centennial family reunion in the early ’80s.

As we peered through the empty window frames during the festivities, I thought of my mother’s story about her great-grandma Sissel hanging burlap in the openings until she and Ivar saved enough money to buy glass windows. Ivar drove his horses and wagon 100 miles east to Devil’s Lake, the train terminus, to get them. Sissel polished and enjoyed the new windows for one day before an afternoon hailstorm brewed on the hot plains and broke them all. She cleaned up the mess and rehung the burlap sacks.

Those fractured windows must have been a tough loss, but she had been through worse things, including burying three children in a Norwegian churchyard. The windows, though, were much more tangible to me at the time. I put my hands on the rough-hewn ledge from which Sissel once had cleared glass shards and imagined her disconsolation.

From her story I learned a person has to keep going, whatever arises, for as long as one lives. What we take years to save and to tend, we may lose in one stroke.

In the end, the best and most enduring treasure we have is the memories stored inside us, like spending a Sunday afternoon drawing plans for a top-secret underground backyard hideout with someone we cherish.

In memory of her aunt and godmother, Crystal Conrad, 1945-2014.


Jennifer Vogt-Erickson taught social studies in Albert Lea for more than six years before staying home to raise
children. She lives with her husband, Jeshua, and their two young children, Trixie and Axel. She wrangles toddlers by day and writes by night.